Thursday, January 6, 2011


Alton Federal Military Prison, Alton, Illinois

The Alton prison opened in 1833 as the first Illinois State Penitentiary and was closed in 1860, when the last prisoners were moved to a new facility at Joliet. By late 1861, an urgent need arose to relieve the overcrowding at two St. Louis prisons. On December 31, 1861, Major General Henry Halleck, Commander of the Department of the Missouri, ordered Lieutenant-Colonel James B. McPherson to Alton for an inspection of the closed penitentiary. Colonel McPherson reported that the prison could be made into a military prison and house up to 1,750 prisoners with improvements estimated to cost $2,415.

The first prisoners arrived at the Alton Federal Military Prison on February 9, 1862, and members of the 13th U.S. Infantry were assigned as guards, with Colonel Sidney Burbank commanding.

During the next three years over 11,764 Confederate prisoners would pass through the gates of the Alton Prison. Of the four different classes of prisoners housed at Alton, Confederate soldiers made up most of the population. Citizens, including several women, were imprisoned here for treasonable actions, making anti-Union statements, aiding an escaped Confederate, etc. Others, classified as bushwhackers or guerillas, were imprisoned for acts against the government such as bridge burning and railroad vandalism.

Conditions in the prison were harsh and the mortality rate was above average for a Union prison. Hot, humid summers and cold Midwestern winters took a heavy toll on prisoners already weakened by poor nourishment and inadequate clothing. The prison was overcrowded much of the time and sanitary facilities were inadequate. Pneumonia and dysentery were common killers but contagious diseases such as smallpox and rubella were the most feared. When smallpox infection became alarmingly high in the winter of 1862 and spring of 1863, a quarantine hospital was located on an island across the Mississippi River from the prison. Up to 300 prisoners and soldiers died and are buried on the island, now under water. A cemetery in North Alton that belonged to the State of Illinois was used for most that died. A monument there lists 1,534 names of Confederate soldiers that are known to have died. An additional number of civilians and Union soldiers were victims of disease and illness.

Imprisoned here was soldier woman Barbara Ann Duravan who died of smallpox and was buried in the Confederate Cemetery. Another female prisoner, listed as "a Citizen of Memphis, Tennessee", also died of smallpox and was buried on the island opposite Alton. The island is now under water.

Andersonville (Camp Sumter), Andersonville, VA

Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was known officially, held more prisoners at any given time than any of the other Confederate military prisons. It was built in early 1864 after Confederate officials decided to move the large number of Federal prisoners in and around Richmond to a place of greater security and more abundant food. During the 14 months it existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding or exposure to the elements.

The prison pen was surrounded by a stockade of hewed pine logs that varied in height from 15-17 feet. The pen was enlarged in late June 1864 to enclose 26-1/2 acres. Sentry boxes—called “pigeon roosts” by the prisoners—stood at 90-foot intervals along the top of the stockade and there were two entrances on the west side. Inside, about 19 feet from the wall, was the “deadline,” which prisoners were forbidden to cross. The “deadline” was intended to prevent prisoners from climbing over the stockade or from tunneling under it. It was marked by a simple post and rail fence and guards had orders to shoot any prisoner who crossed the fence, or even reached over it. A branch of Sweetwater Creek, called Stockade Branch, flowed through the prison yard and was the only source of water for most of the prison.

Soldier women imprisoned here include Florence Budwin, who was transferred to Camp Florence in Florence, SC.

Belle Isle Prison, Richmond, VA

Belle Isle Prison, located on an island in the James River and connected by footbridge to Richmond, was a Confederate military prison. Opened in June 1862 and closed in October 1864, the facility was subject to multiple closures and re-openings, which were contingent upon prisoner exchanges. While Richmond's Libby Prison was set aside for Union officers, Confederate authorities used Belle Isle to hold non-commissioned officers and privates. It was originally intended only as a holding facility until more adequate prisons were available. A hospital for prisoners and an iron factory were located on the island, but no barracks were ever built for the prisoners.

Although Belle Isle's isolation was ideal in terms of discouraging escape attempts, its location proved less than ideal in terms of shelter. Unlike Castle Thunder and Libby prisons, both brick structures located in Richmond, Belle Isle was an open-air stockade. The prison's six-acre perimeter consisted of earthworks that stood roughly three feet high, and the prisoners' only shelter came from three hundred or fewer Sibley tents (conical, pole tents invented by Henry Hopkins Sibley), which slept about 10 prisoners each. This limited shelter proved grossly inadequate, especially as the number of prisoners steadily grew.

The overcrowding led to numerous health problems among the prisoners—including, most notably, the smallpox outbreak of December 1863. Moreover, during the summer of 1863, the prison's conditions came to the attention of the Northern media and were thereafter used as a major source of propaganda regarding Confederate cruelty to prisoners. According to the diary of John Ransom, a soldier who was incarcerated there, "Stormy and disagreeable weather. From fifteen to twenty and twenty-five die every day and are buried just outside the prison with no coffins—nothing but canvas wrapped around them." In his entry for February 11, 1864, Ransom implies that prisoners were robbing each other of rations and blankets: "… a good deal of fighting going on among the men … [They are] "just like so many hungry wolves penned together."

Soldier women who were imprisoned here include Mary & Mollie Bell (transferred to Castle Thunder), Madame Collier (sent north under a flag of truce), Mary Jane Johnson and a woman by the alias “Tommy” (both released when discovered to be women).

Castle Thunder

Castle Thunder in Richmond, VA (not to be confused with the prison of the same name in Petersburg) was an infamous Confederate military prison during the Civil War. In service from August 1862 until April 1865, the facility was established for political prisoners, Unionists and deserters, but its use quickly expanded to include women, spies and African Americans. Castle Thunder's keepers earned a reputation for brutality and were subject to investigation in 1863 by the Confederate House of Representatives. At the end of the war, Union military personnel took control of Castle Thunder and used it to incarcerate former Confederates.

The prison held approximately 100 female inmates throughout the war. Although in July 1864 Confederate authorities created a department at the prison specifically for the detention of "depraved and abandoned" women, most female inmates were political prisoners, the most famous of which was Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. A New York–born abolitionist and Union surgeon, Walker was captured in April 1864 while dressed as man. She was transferred to Castle Thunder and remained there until exchanged on August 12.

The details of her capture were reported in the Richmond Sentinel on April 22, 1864: "The female Yankee surgeon captured by our pickets a short time since, in the neighborhood of the army of Tennessee, was received in this city yesterday evening, and sent to the Castle in charge of a detective. Her appearance on the street in full male costume, with the exception of a gipsey hat, created quite an excitement amongst the idle negroes and boys who followed and surrounded her. She gave her name as Dr. Mary E. Walker, and declared that she had been captured on neutral ground. She was dressed in black pants and black or dark talma or paletot. She was consigned to the female ward of Castle Thunder, there being no accommodations at the Libby for prisoners of her sex. We must not omit to add that she is ugly and skinny, and apparently above thirty years of age."

By January 1863, the 1,400-capacity prison housed 3,000 men and women, and diseases such as dysentery and smallpox were prevalent. Struggling to maintain order among such a large and diverse population, prison officials—including its commandant, Captain George W. Alexander—often resorted to violence. In April 1863, the Confederate Congress authorized an investigation and heard accusations of unauthorized lashings and Alexander's use of his large dog Nero to intimidate prisoners. In the end, however, Congress sanctioned the violence, which continued until Alexander was replaced by Dennis Callahan in February 1864.

Other soldier women imprisoned here included Mary & Molly Bell.

The Florence Stockade, Camp Florence, Florence, SC

A stockade was constructed in Florence, SC to accommodate prisoners, previously incarcerated at Andersonville and other prisons in south Georgia. These prisoners were moved as a result of Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union Forces heading to Savannah in the now famous “March to the Sea.” Approximately 2,802 Union soldiers died and many are buried as “unknowns” in the adjacent Florence National Cemetery.

In the five months this stockade was in operation, as many as 18,000 Union soldiers were held there. With an initial death rate of 20 to 30 men a day, a total of about 2,800 would perish. Among them were as many as 14 of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey soldiers captured on May 14, 1864 during the fighting on Myer’s Hill, near Spotsylvania Courthouse. Accurate death and burial records failed to survive the war, and these soldiers may likely be interred in the 16 burial trenches containing 2,167 “unknowns”, at what is now the Florence National Cemetery.

Soldier woman Florena Budwin was transferred here from Andersonville. She contracted pneumonia a few months later and died January 25, 1865. She's buried in the Florence National Cemetery where she lies in a mass grave in Section D. It's thought that she is the first woman to be buried in a National Cemetery. 

Gratiot Prison, St. Louis, Missouri

Gratiot Street Prison served as McDowell Medical College before the war. The head of the college, Dr. Joseph McDowell, was well known in the St. Louis community as a doctor. He was also known for his strange behavior and outspoken support for the South. Dr. McDowell acquired two cannons that he kept at his college. He would instruct his students to fire them on holidays. On one such holiday he dressed in a colonial-style three-cornered hat and instructed his students to “make Rome howl.”

When the war broke out, McDowell made his way to the Confederacy, taking his cannons with him. As with many known Southern sympathizers his property was taken and became a barracks. Not long after, word came that 2,000 prisoners of war were on their way to St. Louis. A new facility was needed when Myrtle Street Prison became overcrowded. The McDowell Medical College building became Gratiot Street Prison in December 1861. Generally, Gratiot Street Prison served as a holding place for prisoners until they could be transferred to larger facilities.

Gratriot was unique in that it was used not only to hold Confederate prisoners of war, but spies, guerrillas, civilians suspected of disloyalty, and even Federal soldiers accused of crimes or misbehavior. 
In many cases they were placed in the same rooms together. 

The prison also was centered in a city of divided loyalties. Escapees could find refuge in homes not even half a block away. Many of the most dangerous people operating in the Trans-Mississippi passed through its doors. Some escaped in dramatically risky ways; others didn’t and lost their lives at the end of a Union rope or before a firing squad.

The prison was closed in 1865, but portions remained standing for many years. Soldier woman, Ellen Levasay, was imprisoned here.

Old Capitol Prison, Washington, DC

Union soldiers pose in front of the Old Capitol Prison, at the corner of 1st and A streets northeast in Washington, D.C. Originally called the Old Brick Capitol, the structure had been built as a temporary home for Congress after the British burned the Capitol in 1814. During the Civil War the building was used as a jail for Confederate soldiers and political prisoners. Among its most famous inmates were spies Rose O'Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd, and Confederate commander John S. Mosby. Captain Henry Wirz, who had served as Confederate commandant of Andersonville Prison in Georgia, was convicted of murder by a military tribunal and hanged in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison in November 1865. 

Soldier women imprisoned here include Ida Ellison, Sarah E. Mitchell, Mary Catherine Murphy (transferred to City Point, VA) and Ida Remington.

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